• Arthur Bruso

Spreading the Word – A Review of "A History of Illuminated Manuscripts" by Christopher de Hamel



Wax writing tablet with several leaves.

It could be argued that the book was the greatest achievement in communication after writing. The book form as we know it: pages sewn together at one side, sandwiched between two stiff boards, evolved from the ancient Roman wax writing tablet. Several tablets could be lashed together with cord along one side to provide more writing surface, taking the approximate structure of the modern book. This form of leaved book is technically known as a codex. The codex was further influenced by the Roman habit of carrying around more portable folded pieces of papyrus on which to write notes. Before the codex was developed, the primary form books took was the scroll. The scroll had its inconveniences. It was difficult to hold flat, which made it difficult to read. It could only be read a section at a time and it was difficult to navigate to specific sections of the text. By the waning years of the Roman Empire, the codex had supplanted the scroll as the form of choice for reading and writing.


In his History of Illuminated Manuscripts, Christopher de Hamel begins by giving the Christians credit for making the codex the primary carrier for the written word in the western world. The format of the Bible and the Gospels required that the various sections be referred to as needed, and the codex offered the ease of flipping through a text to find the looked-for section which the scroll did not. They needed something portable and durable to withstand the rigors of travel and handling. In its first centuries, Christianity exploited the attributes of the codex, allowing the Gospel to be carried and shown to every corner of the known world.


Having studied at Oxford and headed the department of Western Manuscripts at Sotheby’s until 2000, De Hamel has nurtured an expertise on medieval manuscripts. His thorough understanding on his chosen topic shows in his exceptional method of organizing the material. A simple timeline on the development of manuscripts would be confusing, since there were many kinds of manuscript books which evolved for different purposes. De Hamel divides the major categories of books: Missionaries, Emperors, Monks, Students, Aristocrats, Everybody (this chapter discusses manuscripts that anyone would own, especially the middle class), Priests, and Collectors into chapter headings. Within each chapter, he traces the development and history of each category. Each has its unique properties that set it apart; missionary books had to be impressive, with illustrations to explain and convince the non-believer; the emperor’s books had to be rich with costly materials as well as having many full page pictures as befits a monarch, monks needed sturdy books for prayer that could withstand daily use; students needed inexpensive books; aristocrats craved costly looking books that could emulate the king’s and show their social position; the rising middle class (discussed under the chapter titled Everybody) were also willing to pay a handsome price for a Book of Hours and so conspicuously show the fashionable that they could afford such treasures; and priests needed several kinds of books, some for show in the church for prestige and to awe the congregation with the glory of God’s Word, and other more sturdy books for study and reference.

With each chapter, the author begins the category with an appropriate story that sets the tone and emphasizes the subject which gains the readers interest. It is an effective method, drawing in the reader and making a potential stodgy history relevant and alive. These are obscure yet interesting anecdotes about Medieval books. As in Books for Missionaries, he conveys the story of St. Augustine and his missionaries traveling to Briton in 597 AD to bring the Word of Christ to convert the heathens of the British Isles. With the assistance of the books Augustine carried which functioned to reinforce his message, he achieved success in converting the Britons. It was the books they carried that gave Christianity its edge in the pagan world. Christianity is a religion of the book and its message goes hand and hand with literacy. This was a new concept to the pagans who had no written word. Missionaries could face skeptical audiences with the Gospels, a manual for salvation written by God, and face down an oral tradition of myth. The illiterate and barely literate could be impressed by a written message that was believed to come directly from its spiritual source. In the second chapter titled Books for Emperors, De Hamel relates a legend about the opening of Charlemagne’s tomb in 1000 AD by Otto III. The story handed down is that Charlemagne was interred sitting up with a splendid illuminated manuscript on his lap. De Hamel makes the point that lavish illustrated manuscripts would have been part of the regalia of a Christian ruler.

Until 1200, most manuscripts were copied by monks to further the glory of God and his Holy Word. They were created as both a labor of faith and as meditative prayer to grow closer to the Devine. Conversely, they could be copied as a penance to atone for and cleanse themselves of human foibles. The highest standards and materials were used for these works, with gold and silver being prominent as befits the concept of God as the light and for the glorification of scripture as His sacred word. Manuscripts at this time were limited to the Bible, the Gospels, and other liturgical books. There were also a few books of classical philosophy such as Aristotle who became the basis of Medieval thought in the universities and bestiaries that were considered to further Christian dogma by presenting all the creations of God. But most ancient classical writing was ignored for copying since it was the product of pagans and promoted pagan thought. While many Roman and Greek texts were saved in monastic or the Papal libraries, they were mostly ignored. This often led to their deterioration and subsequent loss. It should be stressed, that even though most manuscripts produced by monks were liturgical in nature, it was the monastery and the church leadership that preserved the limited literature handed down to us from ancient European sources. Most books during this period were copied or created for the use of the clergy. By monastic law and papal decree, each monastery was required to maintain a library and certain liturgical books. Royalty also commissioned a few manuscripts for prestige and presentation to dignitaries. Literacy during the early Middle Ages was limited to the clergy and a few kings and some aristocracy. After 800 AD during the reign of Charlemagne, reading and writing in Latin became fashionable for the upper classes.

After the 12th century, the reestablishment of trade routes began the rise of middle class and with it a rise in literacy. This created a subsequent interest in secular literature causing the monastic scriptorium to have to take on lay scribes to keep up with increasing commissions. These lay scribes at first would be allowed to work in the monastery separated from the monks. Eventually, the scribes began to set up their own scriptoria outside of the monastery and in time took over the creation of illuminated manuscripts. As a secular enterprise, the range of subject matter for books expanded from the liturgical subjects to include more popular writing and the rediscovered classical texts. This allowed authors such as Dante, Marco Polo and Boccaccio to find distribution for their works and helped to develop a new market for worldly literature.


With the rise of the scriptoria outside of the monastery, the quality of the illustrated manuscript suffered. No longer were the scribes creating books simply for the glory of God. They were creating books to satisfy the commercial interests of a patron, a student or a collector. The glorious religious texts with their sumptuous treasure bindings gave way to plainer leather bindings, less ornamented script with minimal gilding, fewer illustrations (or none) and those illustrations which were included began to follow a formula. Yet the secularization opened up an entire new guild of workers and offered new career opportunities for women. Many scriptoria that were established employed female painters and scribes, especially in large cities such as Paris and Bologna. De Hamel drops this intriguing bit of feminist history with the casual ease of the expert. He does not elaborate further because no further information has come to light. Most scribes and illuminators worked anonymously. It was only through their names and occupations appearing on the tax lists of the time that provided clues of their existence. I mention this not only because it bears emphasis for the current exploration of women in European art history, but also because recently this bit of information has been making the rounds of the internet as if it is entirely new scholarship. It is not. A History of Illuminated Manuscripts was published in 1986 and certainly, woman’s roles in manuscript production was understood before then.


A History of Illuminated Manuscripts covers the period of the beginning of the Middle Ages (5th century) to the invention of printing, about the 1440’s. The keyword is “manuscript”: written by hand. All of the Illuminated manuscripts created in those 800 years were the product of hand labor. Handwriting text was laborious and slow, often fraught with boredom and errors. It represented an extraordinary commitment of time and effort. Yet, as the author tells us, illuminated manuscripts are the most numerous works of art to survive from the Middle Ages because they were treasured and protected. De Hamel provides engrossing explanations on the methods of producing manuscripts. The use of techniques that were used to speed up the process, such as pricking the ends of the lines through the folio before writing to speed up the ruling of the pages. He explains how the division of labor between the scribe, illustrator, painter, gilder, and binder helped to simplify the complex process of finishing a book. All throughout, there are copious illustrations of the most important Gospels, examples of unfinished manuscripts which show the stages of a book’s production, the evolution of script styles to speed up the copying, illumination and gilding techniques and how bindings were determined by the end use of the book. He explains the major schools and styles of manuscripts that developed between monasteries, countries and kingdoms. He also reveals how styles of illustration can determine the age and origin of a manuscript. He even discusses how the Book of Hours contributed to the devolution of the illustrated manuscript as they became more popular with a burgeoning middle class and needed to become more formulaic and ordered by pattern to keep up with the demand.


A History of Illuminated Manuscripts is an art history book for the scholar as well as the general interest reader. There is enough detail and deep investigation into the subject to keep both camps satisfied. It is heavily illustrated making the book an important resource for a beginning study of Medieval books and a visual delight to simply browse. It has even become a standard college text for specialists studying the field. The Wikipedia page for Illustrated Manuscripts is even lifted directly from de Hamel’s book. The period of time in Europe between the fall of the Roman empire and the rise of the Renaissance has often been described as the Dark Ages. The dark refers to the period of the reinvention of European culture after the glory of the Roman achievement in art, architecture, and the unification of government. However, the illustrated manuscript continued to develop in an unbroken line from classical Rome until the invention of printing, through the efforts of the Christians and their heavenly directive to spread the Gospel of the Lord. The monasteries and the Church preserved the written word and art in the form of painting and drawing of the Gospel illustrations. Creativity continued and flourished (although under the limiting set of constrictions of Christianity) in the colorful, glowing and magically enlivening illustration of liturgical texts. It was the illustrated manuscript and later the gothic cathedral that became the highest cultural achievements of the Medieval Age. A History of Illuminated Manuscripts is a thorough and necessary book on the history of books. It helps the reader to see the astonishing achievement of the preservation of information at a time of social unrest and widespread ignorance by showing how creating these books that shine bright with light and color, kept knowledge from fading during darkness.


Arthur Bruso © 2019


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